A new front has opened up in the ongoing battle between media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation and the rest of the world.
The focus remains on London, where The Times‘s website is now sequestered behind a pay wall and New York, where The New York Times is using ingenuity to battle The Wall Street Journal‘s encroachment on its local news beat (Times vendors now sell copies on the doorstep of Murdoch’s Avenue of the Americas headquarters).
But in Australia, the land of Murdoch’s birth, his subsidiary News Ltd finds itself encroached upon by the government-funded independent broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
ABC News 24, a digital channel that will directly compete with pay TV operator Foxtel’s Sky News, launched last night to the general unhappiness of the Murdoch empire, which publishes most of the national and metropolitan papers and has a significant stake in Foxtel.
ABC1, the corporation’s flagship channel, broke into normal programming for the debut. First reviews were favourable and admiringly noted that none of the national broadcaster’s famed technical glitches derailed the debut.
The news channel, with its gleaming blue and white set built in the lobby of ABC’s Sydney headquarters, is the brainchild of the ABC’s expansionist managing director Mark Scott, a former government adviser, education reporter and newspaper executive. “He’s the only mogul in town,” comments one seasoned Australian journalist on Scott’s land grab amid the media downturn, which includes a suite of digital channels, an internet player and a boisterous blogging site called The Drum, which gets its own ABC News 24 show.
It is a world away from the fusty ABC of yesteryear, which devoted itself to imitating the BBC and whose first attempt to launch a news channel more than a decade ago was strangled at birth by Foxtel.
Murdoch-baiting is a favoured recreational pastime of many of those in the industry who don’t work for him. Last year Scott socked it to Murdoch in a speech titled “The Fall Of Rome: Media After Empire”, which postulated that media corporations were “less like agents of their destinies than helpless witnesses to the unravelling of all they once stood for”. (News Corporation has a market cap of $11.7bn/€9bn). Murdoch’s pay wall strategy was the “classic play of old empire, an empire in decline”.
Murdoch’s flagship newspaper, The Australian, always highly critical of the ABC, recently sniffed that Scott’s expanding ABC was “marching into a vacuum” not covered by its charter, which is so out of date it doesn’t even mention the internet. It has also attacked the channel as the ABC’s attempt to damage a commercial rival.
David Castran, managing director of media research company Audience Development Australia, acknowledges that Murdoch’s Australian division feels displaced by the arrival of ABC News 24.
“It is going to be a great success and that’s all credit to Mark Scott. He’s young and he’s got drive and has taken a lot of shit and he will take a lot of shit.”
But he predicts the launch of ABC News 24 will boost the audience for rolling news and not necessarily at the expense of the well-regarded but under-funded Sky News, which sometimes crosses on air to its correspondents via Skype. Sky News reaches about 30 per cent of Australian TV owners who pay for Foxtel, while the ABC’s digital news channel will reach about 60 per cent of the total TV audience (those who have digital sets).
But while news and current affairs programmes regularly appear in the top 10 TV programmes of the week, some perspective is called for. Australia is in the midst of an election campaign and ABC News 24 has launched just in time for the TV leaders’ debate, scheduled for Sunday night. But it had to be hastily bumped forward by one hour to avoid clashing with what last year was the most-watched non-sporting programme in Australian TV history – the final of MasterChef.